Thursday, September 30, 2021

It's time for an enjoyable send-off for Daniel Craig's James Bond with No Time to Die


Holding onto the role for 15 years, Daniel Craig’s managed a solid run as James Bond, particularly in titles like Casino Royale and Skyfall. That tenure’s come to an end with No Time To Die and, understandably, 007 fans are concerned whether this send-off to the character is more The Rise of Skywalker than Logan. The good news is No Time to Die proves to be an extremely entertaining and rollicking last hurrah for Craig. The bad news is that this isn't quite a flawless finish for this iteration of the superspy as No Time to Die did leave me yearning in some key areas, though none of its flaws are as bad as the shortcomings that dragged down Spectre, for what it's worth.

No Time to Die begins where that lackluster Spectre left off, with James Bond (Daniel Craig) and Madeline Swann (Lea Seydoux) off the grid and enjoying just being lovers in Italy. These lowkey romantic scenes initially had me wary, since Bond and Swann weren’t compelling as a couple before. Hinging so much of No Time to Die on their relationship seems like it would be a recipe for creating an immediate emotional barrier between them and the viewer. However, the screenplay smartly spends time fleshing out Swann's perspectives (she's even the sole focus of the movie's prologue) to make her and Bond's dynamic work. No Time to Die doesn't just deliver a good movie, it redeems elements from a bad movie! 

Anyway, like Magneto in one of the X-Men: First Class sequels, Bond’s attempts at tranquil living come to a close when violent trouble comes knocking in the form of an ambush by Spectre agents. Their sudden arrival, seemingly the result of something from Swann’s past, drives a wedge between the two lovers, with Bond choosing to return to retirement, now solo. However, the actions of mysterious villain Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek) drags Bond out of his bubble. This new adversary has a scheme that’ll make Bond question whose good, who's bad, and what’s important to him. Shockingly, a James Bond movie also makes time for pretty ladies, extensive car chases, and lots of gunfire.

As evidenced by the decision to incorporate two drastic time jumps before the 15-minute mark is reached, No Time to Die crams a lot into its story. After all, this is "the epic conclusion" (as the TV commercials say) to Craig's time as Bond, so everything and the kitchen sink gets thrown into the mix. Still, even over a 163-minute runtime, I kept wishing there was more room for things to breathe. A big plot turn involving M and questions regarding his morality especially proves underwhelming in how it ends up getting resolved in too hurried a manner. How can you accentuate the traditional atmosphere of uncertainty in a spy thriller if you won’t let the uncertainty simmer?

However, more often than not, No Time to Die provides ample space to admire the toys it's dragged out of the James Bond toybox. Best of all, the decision's been made to make this a more restrained character-driven mission. We get some really fun action scenes in here and there's certainly no shortage of spectacle. But the primary focus of No Time to Die gets established in a prologue establishing Safin not as a baddie who can nuke a city but through the visual language of a slasher movie villain, complete with Safin donning a mask. With the camera lingering on the intimate struggles of an adolescent character trying to endure Safin's rampage, No Time to Die makes it clear this is a film about surviving violence rather than just relentless hollow fistfights.

This quality is well-captured by director Cary Fukunaga, a newcomer to both 007 films and the world of blockbusters. Grounding things in the process of coping with the aftereffects of traumatic violence gives Fukunage a humanistic anchor to ground the enjoyably over-the-top action elements, like machine gun turrets hiding inside the headlights of an automobile. While Fukunaga's handling of certain comedic moments (like an oddly executed gag with a slinky) left me yearning, his filmmaking is otherwise sharp as a tack, particularly his confidence in blending a more contemplative Bond movie with one that goes old-school silly, compete with Bond delivering witty puns after dispatching evil henchmen.

Certain parts of classic Bond films (like its approach to women and/or characters of color) needed an upgrade, there's no denying that. But it’s nice to see that there’s no more apologizing for the harmless silly qualities of Bond. Fukunaga is here to say you can have intimate drama and Bond staples like wacky gadgets too, they’re not mutually exclusive entities. The balance doesn't work 100% of the time (there's one meta-line from Bond delivered in hastily-added voiceover that made me roll my eyes), but it largely does manage to run as smoothly as one of Bond's snazzy vehicles.

Also working nicely in this installment is the cast, headlined by Daniel Craig. Having reaffirmed his range in recent projects like Knives Out, Craig returns to the world of 007 with no fears of getting typecast in this role, allowing him to focuses on providing just the right balance of vulnerability and confident moxie as Bond. Craig continues to be a great leading man for these films while the supporting players in No Time to Die prove equally commendable. Lashana Lynch, as the new 007 for MI6, is a great foil for Craig, Lea Seydoux does strong work injecting tangible humanity into Vesper, and Ben Whishaw continues to be a delight as Q. Stealing the whole movie over two scenes is Ana de Armas, whose excitable novice secret agent may seriously be the best thing to emerge in the entire Daniel Craig era of James Bond features. 

As for Rami Malek as the requisite Bond baddie this go-around, he's pretty good. The character of Safin is more distinct in terms of how he's presented and the function he serves in the story than in Malek's performance and the characters dialogue, both of which evoke too many other modern blockbuster adversaries (like Thanos or the villain in the last two Mission: Impossible titles) for my liking. But I like Safin the more I ruminate on him, especially in how he isn't as much of the principal threat as Bond's trust issues. Fukanaga and company wisely accentuate Safin's shadowy presence to allow the internal shortcomings of No Time to Die's protagonist to take center stage as the central origin of conflict. This more sparing use of Safin also allows one to appreciate the better qualities of Malek's performance, which does manage to feel like a different beast than his work in Mr. Robot or Bohemian Rhapsody.

The considerate care and ambition in No Time to Die don't result in a perfect movie. Certain major developments in the plot needed extra time to breathe and other aspects of the movie, like some clumsy pieces of editing or Hans Zimmer's occasionally intrusive score, could've used further fine-tuning. But No Time to Die still emerges as a highly enjoyable blockbuster that delivers plenty (sometimes too much) bang for your buck and more effective poignancy than I was expecting. Die-hard fans of this franchise need not fret, the Daniel Craig era of James Bond movies has come to a satisfying end. Now, onto the era of endless Knives Out sequels! 

Venom: Let There be Carnage needed to let there be more fun


The biggest advantage Venom: Let There Be Carnage has over its predecessor is that it knows what people liked about the very first Venom. Whereas the first film was an erratic mess that felt like five movies sewed into one, Let There Be Carnage is firmly rooted in milking the odd couple dynamic between Venom and Carnage for all its worth. This rapport yields some chuckles, all of them when serious statements are juxtaposed against the sight of a gigantic goo-alien. Venom mournfully whispering “I wish you were here to see me, Eddie" after giving a triumphant speech, that is fun.

Unfortunately, those moments are few and far in between in Venom: Let There Be Carnage. The majority of the film is hyperactively cramming so much comedy and mayhem into its runtime, it all becomes more exhausting than fun. There’s ambitious filmmaking and then there’s a movie that cannot justify treating its string of half-baked gags as an episodic plot structure. 

Eddie Brock and Venom (Tom Hardy) are having a rough go of things. They share the same body, but their ambitions couldn’t be more different. Brock wants to live a normal life, Venom wants to snack on the heads of bad guys. Their conflicting goals eventually result in the duo going their separate ways just as serial killer Cletus Kassidy (Woody Harrelson) gets an alien Symbiote of his own. Now armed with the power of the otherworldly beast Carnage, Kassidy begins a rampage and pursuit of longtime girlfriend Shriek (Naomie Harris) that only Venom could stop.

Put simply, the ramshackle nature of Let There Be Carnage would be easily forgiven if the movie was humorous or fun. It is neither of those things. The comedy falls so flat that it seems like the post-production process was largely dedicated to injecting extra jokes uttered by characters just off-screen. Yes, just like the jokes described by Patton Oswalt in that one stand-up comedy sketch. Someone like Woody Harrelson will deliver the line “who said romance is dead?” in voiceover, all in the pursuit of a laugh that never comes from the audience. There’s a sense of desperation to Let There Be Carnage’s yuks, not freewheeling amusement.

The proclivity towards just overwhelming the audience extends to the action scenes. Typically, director Andy Serkis opts to forego exciting gruesome kills or contained intimate skirmishes in favor of just dumping tons of CG onto the screen and hoping something sticks. Carnage’s big scenes, like his prison escape set-piece, are just a cacophony of noise and incoherent imagery. The editing works overtime to avoid showing anything that could earn the movie an R-eating while the Marco Beltrami score lathers on piercing screeches of radio static for reasons that I will never understand. The action scenes in Venom: Let There Be Carnage are a nightmare for all the wrong reasons. 

It’s also strange that the movie obviously wants to play on people’s fondness for the Eddie/Venom banter from the first movie but then separates the duo for almost all of the second act. Venom has some amusing moments going out on his own to a music festival but neither character works like gangbusters as a solo act. Plus, none of their antics are funny enough to make this stretch of the plot feel like it’s anything but killing time until everyone has to come together to fight Cletus Kassidy/Carnage. A movie like Venom: Let There Be Carnage leaning hard on wacky comedy shouldn't also be so reliant on formulaic elements you can see coming a mile away. Venom: Let There Be Carnage wants to run wild, but it ends up just running mild.

Similarly predictable details drag down the rest of the proceedings, like reducing Michelle Williams’ Ann Weyeng to being a damsel-in-distress for the climax. Shriek getting turned on by Kassidy going into his Carnage form is a neat detail, but that’s her only moment of liveliness as a character. Otherwise, she’s a generic foe that could’ve been airlifted in from any random superhero movie. All the familiar details weigh down the performers, who are actually the best part of the proceedings (other than Serkis's wise decision to keep this thing running at just 90 minutes). 

The cast is game for all this lighthearted nonsense, but Venom: Let there Be Carnage is too adherent to the demands of traditional blockbuster filmmaking to let their commitment carry the day. Do we need to run off to the next explosion-laden set-piece nobody will care about an hour after the movie ends? Why not just make a cheaper Venom film that relies more heavily on weirdo humor and the actors? Woody Harrelson has shown countless times that he can captivate just by acting eccentric on the screen, why have him forfeit so much of his screentime to a fully CG Carnage? At least what flashes of dedicated silliness the actors do get to express proves. Naomie Harris, for instance, seems to be having a blast just playing a Saturday morning cartoon villain that wandered into the real world while Stephen Graham amusingly commits to playing every TV cop ever as Detective Mulligan. Above all else in the cast, seeing Michelle Williams cooing about Venom being “sexy” and “hot” is a more unbelievable sight than anything buckets of CGI could conjure up. 

When Venom: Let There Be Carnage embraces those committed performances and flourishes of queerness, it actually suggests a fun and campy movie. But obligations to the most generic kind of action blockbuster keeps tripping the feature up. Just as Eddie Brock and Venom are constantly dueling, so too is Venom: Let There Be Carnage at war with itself. There's an inspired burst of unabashedly weird filmmaking in here just dying to get out. Unfortunately, the most uninspired elements end up dominating the piece. Venom’s utterance of “I’m out of the Eddie closet!” at a rave provides a rare glimpse at the superior movie Venom: Let There Be Carnage could have been.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Any film fan needs to take a tour of Rome Open City


The wounds of World War II are clearly still fresh as Rome Open City. Shot in Rome, Italy shortly after the conclusion of this global conflict, Rome Open City isn't so much a film chronicling the distant past as it is just recounting recent memories for its participating artists. This lends an immediately vivid quality to what we're watching. All those lived-in experiences give director Roberto Rossellini a rich emotional core to draw from. Everyone involved is aware of the human cost of this war, the lives lost, the families torn apart, the psyches shattered. All of those consequences are made hauntingly apparent here in a truly incredible piece of filmmaking.

What's especially impressive about Rome Open City is it chronicles an important era of history with characters who are intentionally unimportant. The fictional figures at the forefront of the story are not the figures of the past who get statues erected in their honor or become the subject of songs chanted on the battlefield. Much like A Hidden Life, Rome Open City is about the everyday human beings for whom survival and holding onto one's ideals are enough of a goal to cling to every day. Much like the authentic emotions of the plot, the intimate scope of the proceedings are instantly compelling and make the stakes of this plot tangible to any viewer from anywhere on the planet. 

The screenplay, credited to Rossellini as well as Sergio Amidei, Federico Fellini, and Alberto Consiglio, creates such engaging characters out of this restrictive setting. Especially fascinating is the closest thing we have to a traditional protagonist here, Don Pietro Pellegrini (Aldo Fabrizi), a guy who starts out the story slightly detached from the larger conflict before becoming one of the two survive male characters extensively tortured by the Nazi antagonists. Here we have a prime example of the sort of ordinary humans that can make a difference simply by refusing to be consumed by the cruelty surrounding them from every angle. It's a commanding core detail for a character made all the more fascinating by Fabrizi's performance.

These qualities are filtered through Rossellini's impeccable style of filmmaking, which is especially great at utilizing depth of field. Shots like the image of Nazi soldiers marching up an endless series of staircases vividly convey the sense of danger that threatens Pellegrini and his adolescent companion in a stressful moment. Meanwhile, Rossellini's decision to keep the torture of one of our lead characters entirely off-screen for the finale proves a wise decision that still gets across the viciousness of these Nazis without lingering on the anguish of a tormented fighter against oppression. Rossellini's camera never carries an exploitative quality in capture the carnage of history.

Rome Open City is also littered with all kinds of small details, like the easygoing rapport between the kid characters, that suggest vast lives for these characters beyond their place in the revolution against Nazi forces. Being made so close to the Nazi occupation of Italy doesn't just mean Rome Open City feels ripped from the headline, it also means Rossellini and company are well aware that this isn't the norm. The citizens of this city were once not solely defined by the actions of hideous Nazis. Being conscious of this informs the rich humanity of the everyday people Rome Open City depicts with such success that it still captivates all these years later.

Saturday, September 25, 2021

I'm Your Man has flashes of thoughtful humanity


Alma (Maren Eggert) is a woman whose life is quite busy between her teaching exploits and, most importantly, a research project she and her team have been working on for ages. However, her superior has bestowed her with a new assignment: try a robotic romantic partner. It's a technological leap forward that could change mankind forever and Alma's been tasked to see if these mechanical creations can work as life partners. Thus, Tom (Dan Stevens), supposedly created to be Alma's ideal soulmate, is entrusted to Alma, who has no time for affection or strong human connections. Over their time together, Alma will introduce Tom to a world that's far more complex than anything in a manual while Tom will begin to uncover what really makes this woman tick.

I'm Your Man is the latest in a long line of movies about human-like automatons struggling to grasp the concept of love while providing an opportunity for moviegoers to ruminate on what the concept means. Everything from Bicentennial Man to (sort of) Her has probed this topic, so director Maria Schrader (who also wrote the screenplay with Jan Schomburg) isn't uncovering untrodden territory with this film. Initially, it seems like this German feature may not have enough unique elements to stand on, with Tom's personality particularly coming off as especially derivative of other movie robots who are helpful but also too cold in their perfection.

Dan Stevens certainly commits to the role and does especially solid work conveying with his eyes a sense of warmth you'd want from a romantic partner but also this eerie detached quality that reminds you you're looking at a robot. However, his first scenes, like a comedic detour where he pretends to be human in a coffee shop, use that performance from Stevens for familiar fish-out-of-water ends. Alma's starting point of being more irritated than amazed by this robotic marvel is also too familiar for its own good, with all the derivative storytelling details getting accompanied by Schrader's competent but not especially distinctive direction.

Luckily, I'm Your Man definitely improves as it goes alone, particularly regarding its central message. Without delving into spoiler territory, the movie cleverly uses Alma's distrust for the prospect of a robotic partner as a segway into her deeper emotional problems of refusing to get too attached to people lest she lose them or they let her down. This is where I'm Your Man is finally able to stand apart from other movies about humans and robots contemplating what love and emotional connections are. Committing to investigating this part of Alma, complete with a commendably messy performance from Maren Eggert, informs the very best sequences of I'm Your Man.

It's also interesting to see that I'm Your Man begins to uncover an intriguingly glib view of humanity that was hiding in plain sight from the very beginning. Though its quasi-futuristic world appears to be functioning like normal (it's not at all dystopian), Schrader works in both subtle and pronounced depictions of how humans often act less human than machines like Tom. It's not a totally original concept to be sure, but the gradual reveal that this is a critical part of I'm Your Man's story is well-done and quietly provides an additional melancholy layer to why Alma would feel so alone. How can you hope to connect with others when people are preoccupied with their own selfish desires?

That extra dark note adds a nice distinctive layer to the bond that eventually forms between Alma and Tom. A robotic pal like Tom would seem extra appealing in a world as subtly daunting as this one. Whenever I'm Your Man commits to these kinds of distinctive details, not to mention fixates on Eggert's terrific lead performance, it's at its best. Even the weaker and more familiar parts, though, usually involve a suave Dan Stevens delivering charming lines of dialogue in German, so that's not nothing. I'm Your Man isn't the next favorite sci-fi romance indie film you'll fall madly in love with, but it's certainly enough charms to make for an amiable date night.

Monday, September 20, 2021

Copshop hits some B-movie bullseyes, misses others


Director Joe Carnahan once made a tank fly. Through his 2010 movie The A-Team, Carnahan threw all logic or laws of gravity to the wind to make a tank soar through the sky as the creators of cinema intended. For that instance of madness as well as making a modern A-Team movie that's way more fun than it has any right to be, he'll always have my respect. Since that movie, Carnahan has stuck to the low-budget indie scene to deliver gnarly but distinctive fare like The Grey and Stretch. His newest motion picture is the low-budget action movie Copshop, which benefits from Carnahan's experienced hand but could've used more of the over-the-top zest he's brought to other projects.

Teddy Muretto (Frank Grillo) needs a place to hide. He's a con artist so desperate to lay low that he sucker punches a cop, Valerie Young (Alexis Louder), just so he can have a jail cell to reside in. Surely behind bars, none of the people after him will track him down. This seemingly foolproof plan comes crumbling down when the cops pull in master hitman Bob Viddick (Gerard Butler) and place him in the cell across from Muretto. Now, these two men are trapped in the same holding area, an already grisly proposition enhanced in nastiness by the arrival of psychopathic assassin Anthony Lamb (Toby Huss). It's gonna be a long night for Young and everyone else in this precinct as the bullets fly and allegiances shift on a dime.

It's easy to see why Copshop would be an enticing prospect to shoot during the era of COVID-19. Save for one scene early on where Young breaks up a scuffle outside of a casino, no scene in Copshop features more than three or four people at a time. It's certainly commendable that Carnahan and Kurt McLeod's screenplay commits to such a sparse aesthetic. Even the climax keeps things contained to just a handful of people shooting at each other in a locker room rather than blowing up the scope for the sake of incorporating larger explosions. Copshop is a movie about bad people talking trash and punching each other in the throat and none of the creatives involved forget that.

The downside to keeping the scope so restrained, though, is that sometimes those elements overstay their welcome. Running at 107 minutes, Copshop needed a trim in the editing room, particularly extended examples of comedic dialogue from Lamb that feel like the sort of overlong improvisations you'd find in a Judd Apatow movie. There are also not enough enjoyably oversized personalities in the first-half, which is all about building stuff up before the guns start firing, to make this dialogue-heavy section of the film compelling. It's obvious from the start whose good, whose bad, whose going to die first when wild card Lamb arrives. 

All of the unpredictable madness of prior Carnahan movies is missed in the more lethargic sections of Copshop. Thankfully, this filmmaker has assembled a solid enough cast to make sure things never sink to outright tedium. Gerard Butler, in particular, follows up his memorably madcap work in Den of Thieves with another committed goofy performance here as a guy whose personality swerves between evoking Jack Sparrow and Dirty Harry. It's the kind of role that plays to Butler's strengths as a performer and he makes for a fun musclebound adversary. Frank Grillo, meanwhile, isn't stretching himself beyond his typical screen persona and I kept wondering if a slightly more zany actor (Sharlto Copley maybe?) could've lent the role a touch more pizzazz. Most of the time Grillo's character is just stuck wandering around in a jail cell and Grillo doesn't quite rise to the challenge of being super engaging in such restrained confines.

The real standout of the cast, though, is Alexis Louder in her first major film role. She turns out to be more than capable of holding her own against the experienced likes of Butler and Grillo and it's cool that her performance doesn't fit tidily into the box of traditional action B-movie heroines. Her breakthrough performance gets saddled with some generic pieces of action filmmaking while the film she inhabits has a bad habit of, among other flaws, engaging in "edgy" humor (like an onslaught of fat jokes) that are more yawn-inducing than provocative. Copshop can't hit the heights of either past Carnahan movies or its own ambitions, which is a shame since Louder and Butler are clearly game for all this shlocky action movie mayhem. Maybe they should've just thrown in a flying tank...

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Chaos Walking is a half-formed disaster

Here it is. It exists. Chaos Walking isn't just finished, it's been released to theaters and then put on physical home video. Now it can just be another DVD on a library shelf or on a bookcase that lingers in the background of a YouTube movie reviewer. Watching Chaos Walking crawling into actual existence is like watching the battered version of The King "Strip Weathers" getting pushed across the finish line in Cars. It's not an ideal way to finish things off, but you can't help but smile at seeing something that struggled so much managing to wrap everything up. Now if only Chaos Walking had managed to deliver a competent completed movie...

Todd (Tom Holland) is a young man living on New World, a faraway planet where all the male inhabitants have been infected by The Noise, which transmits their thoughts out loud. There are women on this frontier planet and all the people in Prentisstown under the watchful eye of Mayor Prentiss (Mads Mikkelsen). Chaos gets spurred by the sudden arrival of Viola (Daisy Ridley), an astronaut that crash lands on the planet. Todd takes a liking to Viola but Mayor Prentiss wants to kill her so that she can't sabotage his plans to use her rescue spaceship for his own nefarious means. Now, Viola and Todd are on the run searching for a place to contact Viola's other cosmic companions while the latter character will all their visions of New World challenged.

I'd say Chaos Walking feels phoned-in but I don't want to insult helpful telephone communications. Under the direction of Doug Liman, Chaos Walking is a bafflingly inert affair. Not so much grim as it is lethargic, there isn't much personality to be found here and even less fun or excitement. The closest thing Chaos Walking has to a distinctive trait is the juxtaposition between its A-list cast and the generic forest environments they act against. This production had enough money to afford multiple Oscar-nominees and the newest Spider-Man yet opted to render the various realms of New World with the kind of backdrops you'd see in a YouTube fan film from 2010.

The dissonance there won't be enough to stave off the tedium that quickly sets in while watching Chaos Walking, so if you're like me, you'll start entertaining yourself with some of the more amusing shortcomings. For starters, how old is Todd supposed to be? Multiple characters refer to him as "boy" in a non-derogatory manner, so that means he must be maybe 12-13. After watching the movie, I was informed by somebody whose read the book this is based on (The Knife of Never Letting Go) that Todd is indeed supposed to be 12. But casting 20+ year old Tom Holland, not to mention crafting a joke where Viola is taken aback by his ripped body, signifies that he must be an adult. Yet his behavior and dialogue oscillate between feeling like they come from 14 year old and a particularly world-weary 18-year-old?

Confounding decisions abound here right from the start of the movie, which begins with a quote against a black screen attempting to explain the movies title that will only confound newcomers since it uses in-universe terminology (including crediting the quote to a "Founding New World Member") that the audience doesn't know yet. Also a baffling story structure choice to have Viola discover that Prentiss is explicitly evil just a few minutes into her time on New World, but then have Todd insist he's good for the majority of the runtime. We're all just waiting for Todd to play catchup on realizing an obvious villain is an obvious villain. There's nothing dramatically compelling about that! 

Doug Liman isn't an auteur, per see, but his works ranging from The Bourne Identity to Edge of Tomorrow to Mr. and Mrs. Smith emphasize the vulnerabilities in their action movie leads. Even The Wall, his microbudget 2017 movie for Amazon, had John Cena not beat up armies of henchmen with one hand, but get shot and be mortally injured for almost the entire runtime. This thematic motif and any other fingerprints from Liman are nowhere to be found here. The filmmaking in Chaos Walking is as drained of personality as the performances. Even the chance to visually represent the thoughts of men through The Noise doesn't conjure up anything more than just having what looks like the rainbow-colored barrier from Annihilation hovering over people's heads.

Even the star-studded cast in Chaos Walking offers little of substance beyond unintentional amusement at how clumsily-incorporated certain supporting characters are. David Oyelowo (who I guess is cursed to always get wasted in major American movies that aren't Selma) is around as an angsty preacher that ends up having no consequence on the plot, as reinforced by his comically superfluous death scene. Nick Jonas also exists in this as the son of Prentiss. He eventually just vanishes from the proceedings. It's like he never even existed. His presence in Chaos Walking fittingly represents how the movie will fare in the minds of moviegoers.

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Jessica Chastain shines in the disappointingly conventional biopic The Eyes of Tammy Faye


Tammy Faye, a singer, performer, and former wife of televangelist Jim Baker, is one of those real-life people so oversized that she seems like she wandered off from a movie. Channeling Dolly Parton in her fashion and makeup, armed with a voice that's like a cross between Jessie Buckley in Fargo and Kristen Chenoweth, and always saying what's on her mind with perky energy, Faye is quite the character. She's also the star of The Eyes of Tammy Faye, which saddles a distinctive figure and a terrific lead performance from Jessica Chastain with an extremely conventional, though not necessarily bad, narrative. 

The Eyes of Tammy Faye is another one of those cradle-to-grave biopics, so we begin with Tammy Faye in her childhood, where she's forbidden to go into church with her family since she was conceived from her mom's prior marriage. She finally gets to go in and stay after pretending to have an extreme religious experience, complete with old-timey chants, during the preacher's sermon. This opening establishes Faye as someone in need of love and as someone who knows how to use showmanship to exploit theology for her own means. 

Flash forward to adulthood and Faye (now played by Jessica Chastain) is an adult who's married preacher Jim Baker (Andrew Garfield). Falling in love in college, the duo are setting out to deliver entertainment through the masses first through a traveling roadshow, then through sporadic appearances on a public television show, and finally hosting their own program. As their empire grows, so too do problems in Faye's marriage with Baker. The duo started out with a romance right out of a fairy tale but now, nothing in either their relationship or shady televangelist media company can possibly end well.

Aby Sylvia's screenplay for The Eyes of Tammy Faye (which is directed by Michael Showalter) is an oddly tidy creation. Even something as simple as Faye first getting people's attention through cutesy puppets espousing Christian morals has to be rooted in a backstory involving Faye talking to her hand as a lonely child. Everything's got a backstory here and the emphasis on all the explanations, combined with the overly expansive scope of the movie, makes The Eyes of Tammy Faye a film more in love with factoids than characters or themes. It's a bundle of answers to trivia questions that often forgoes depth in the process.

Trimming down how much of Faye's life it covered, or at least finding more imaginative ways to cover that life than the linear narrative Sylvia commits to, would've improved The Eyes of Tammy Faye immensely. It also would've helped if Showalter had demonstrated more ingenuity in executing this straightforward tale. Save for employing fisheye lenses when depicting Faye in the middle of a drug-induced stupor, The Eyes of Tammy Faye doesn't have much visual imagination to its name. Too often , Showalter leans heavily on news clippings to convey important information instead of letting us see the characters grapple with big developments in subtle and engaging ways.

These problems make The Eyes of Tammy Faye a frustratingly pedestrian exercise, one that doesn't have more to offer in tackling big ideas than drawing broad parallels between the scheming nature of Baker and modern-day people (like a certain former president) who use Christianity as a cover for exploitation. That having been said, Showalter does keep things moving at a reasonable clip and the movie remains quite agreeable to watch. There's plenty of nifty-looking costumes around, some well-executed pieces of dark humor, and there's nothing in here that proves tedious. It's all paint-by-numbers, sure, but The Eyes of Tammy Faye is never a chore to watch.

That achievement is largely because of one key ingredient: Jessica Chastain. If there's a reason to watch this movie, it's to see Chastain remind us all that Dark Phoenix was a fluke, she's still got all that talent that made her an incredible discovery in titles like Take Shelter. Though saddled with distracting prosthetics, Chastain resists the urge to just portray Faye as a one-note Saturday Night Live caricature. She fully commits to the oddball eccentricities of this person with a sense of affection. Chastain doesn't want to reduce this person to a punchline but rather get us to understand her as someone more complex. 

It's such a departure from Chastain's performances in the last decade, which have been full of either restrained confidence or subdued remorse. Given the chance to play someone much more stylized, Chastain succeeds exceptionally well in shedding her prior performances to leave viewers with a gangbusters lead turn as Tammy Faye. Also smart casting to have Vincent D'Onofrio, so experienced with playing comic book supervillains with his work on Daredevil, play real-life supervillain Jerry Falwell.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye is one of those movies that leaves you satisfied in the moment but doesn't give you much to chew on after, save for Chastain's impressive work in the titular lead role. It's all perfectly decent but a person as unique as Tammy Faye deserved a movie that went the extra mile and did more to stand out.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Flashes of inspiration in Reminiscence can't overcome its familiar story


Wouldn't you like to get stuck in your happiest memories? Given how brutal reality can be, that sure could sound appealing under the right circumstances. For Reminiscence protagonist, Nick Bannister (Hugh Jackman), the appeal of the past fuels his business, which is built on technology that allows people to relive their happiest memories (for a price, of course). In the dystopian future, he and everyone else inhabits, in which climate change has caused cities like Miami to become flooded, who wouldn't want some escape? Among those looking to the past is Mae (Rebecca Ferguson), a customer who quickly becomes a lover to Bannister.

Unfortunately, she eventually vanishes very suddenly one day, leaving Bannister in a stupor he can't get out of for months. When he stumbles on a revelation regarding Mae's past in the memories of a random gangster, Bannister sets out to find the truth. Not only does he wanna know where Mae went, but he also wants to know if she was really the woman he knew and loved.

Reminiscence is a rare beast for a modern theatrical release from a major American movie studio, a neo-noir with a mid-budget price tag that isn't based on any pre-existing source material. The freedom of not adhering to an established universe gives writer/director Lisa Joy to conjure up a futuristic world full of interesting nooks and crannies. I especially love the fact that the omnipresent monorails and technology that accesses people's memories are straight out of a Hunger Games movie, but characters also use certain old-timey objects, like old-school microphones. The dissonance subtly suggests how, in a future so gripped with climate change and economic inequality, the future can't help but feel like something from the past.

There's also a handful of supporting performances that really lean into the kind of acting you could really only get in a noir. Daniel Wu as gangster Saint Joe especially thrills in this department as he channels the kind of endearing yet intimidating slimeball role that would've been played by Peter Lorre back in the day. Cliff Curtis as a crooked cop, meanwhile, may not have a ton to do but what he does get is infused with a world-weariness that feels right at home in the noir genre. Speaking of noir hallmarks, props to Joy for coming up with an in-universe reason (concerning how, in a future brutalized by climate change, daytime is too hot to go out in) for why this story takes place at night, the classic backdrop for noirs.

Unfortunately, that same slavish devotion to classic noirs ends up harming Reminiscence in other areas. Chiefly, the central storyline is surprisingly content to just go through a basic setup involving an angsty white guy yearning for a barely defined lady that left him abruptly. The familiarity wouldn't be much of a problem except that Joy strangely refuses to embellish it with unique or fun touches despite setting this yarn in a futuristic setting. Often, even the technology that accesses memories feels like an afterthought to a basic noir that could've taken place at any point in time. Plus, it's strange to see the traditional gender roles of this genre maintained so rigidly, save for Thandiwe Newton getting to inhabit a non-romantic interest role as Bannister's co-worker Watts. 

Save for that character, though, Mae, like so many other women in the more disposable entries in this genre, is reduced to being a prop meant to motivate Bannister rather than a character. Joy also makes an odd narrative decision to abruptly jump from Bannister and Mae meeting each other directly to a few months later when she's gone missing. The idea of these two being a romantic couple has only just now entered the story and now we're suddenly supposed to be invested in Bannister chasing down any clues about Mae to the ends of the Earth. The clumsy structuring there is something Reminiscence can never overcome, especially since the ensuing story fails to flesh out their relationship in a compelling fashion.

Despite the emotional core of it being so familiar and often hollow, Reminiscence never truly bored me, probably since the actors (including a grizzled Hugh Jackman, even if his uber-muscular physique is hysterically inappropriate for this character) and the world-building proved moderately intriguing. Unfortunately, those two elements aren't enough to salvage a paint-by-numbers neo-noir as well as other flaws like well-meaning but very shallow attempts at social commentary on issues like income inequality. There's a lot of ideas floating around in Reminiscence, some of them quite interesting. Alas, this is one movie that needed to get its head out of the past and focus more on delivering something unique in the here-and-now.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Small Engine Repair alternates between zooming and sputtering


Based on the 2011 play of the same name, Small Engine Repair concerns three lifelong buddies, Frank Romanoski (John Pollano), Terrence Swaino (Jon Bernthal), and Packie Hanrahan (Shea Whigham) reuniting. Separated during three months of not talking to each other after a bar fight went sour, the trio is spending an evening in Romanoski's garage watching a fight, eating steaks, and reminiscing about older times. Tensions occasionally bubble in their interactions, but things seem to be going relatively OK...until Romanoski reveals that he's called a nineteen-year-old named Chad Walker (Spencer House) to come by and sell him some molly. The introduction of this new kid will bring new tensions to the table and not just because Packie gets a little too eager to try out the molly for himself.

Small Engine Repair isn't just a restrained affair meant to be a showcase for its lead actors and doable to realize as a stage production. It's also an exploration of toxic masculinity and specifically how cyclical this behavior is, how grasping it can be as much a survival technique as anything else. These three guys are prone to listing their tempers and engaging in physical altercations with each other, let alone with just random people that irk them. Writer/director John Pollano doesn't vilify these lead characters but he also isn't letting them off the hook either. We're clearly supposed to be terrified of how quickly chummy interactions can go sour so fast.

One of the most interesting explorations of this theme comes in a mid-movie anecdote from Hanrahan regarding a memorable childhood event he, Romanoski, and Swaino shared. Said anecdote concerns the trio's fathers reacting with grave disappointment to the Red Sox losing the World Series and, after the kids spot one of their dads crying in the kitchen, all three dads proceed to beat their offspring. An instance of vulnerability is immediately followed up by a reassertion of stereotypically "male" dominance. The focus of the story for Hanrahan, though, is that the trio managed to escape their dads, steal some Scotch from a nearby table, and then drink it in the woods. 

All three grown men cheering while reminiscing on the story and how the Scotch "tasted like shit" provides a chilling dissonance between what these guys lingered on and the physically abusive trauma they experienced. No wonder all three have grown up believing violence is the go-to tool to solve any problem. Pollano's thoughtful writing here imbues nuance into guys that could've been insufferable without diluting the sting of their actions. When they lash out or act in a toxic manner, we're supposed to feel it. These two details help lend a compellingly unpredictable quality to the best initiate conversations in Small Engine Repair, especially since the acting is predominately strong. 

Unfortunately, Small Engine Repair begins to sputter once the final half-hour kicks in and a fourth member of the principal cast enters the picture. Without stepping into spoiler territory, Walker's presence in the story stirs up extreme forms of conflict from the three leads, particularly from Romanoski. Up to this point, the screenplay has gotten a lot of mileage out of offhand exchanges and sudden bursts of aggression. To suddenly dovetail into a more traditional story where there are clear-cut protaganists and antagonists to deal with, it's just not playing to the movie's strengths and the more thoughtful qualities of the narrative get lost in the process.

Once characters, especially Walker, begin just shouting their motivations or internal thoughts at one another, I was reminded of much better translations of stage plays to movies that understood how leaning into the intimate nature of their source material can be a boon, not a curse. Think of how much power One Night in Miami gets from suggesting violence will occur against Malcolm X rather than flat-out showing it. Small Engine Repair could've taken a cue from those kinds of productions in executing its final half-hour, which is full of shouting matches and other overt forms of characters expressing themselves. In a stage play format, these elements could have an emotional immediacy to them as you watch them play out live before your eyes. In the context of a film, they just don't work as well.

Part of the issue too is how tidy everything ends up being. Despite the pervasive grimness of the piece and some insightful examinations of the cyclical nature of toxic masculinity, I was shocked that Small Engine Repair ended with more people united than forever alienated. The earlier flashes of complex grimness are traded away for a finale that's so digestible there's even room for Hanrahan and Swaino to share a quippy exchange over the concept of a workplace nickname. Small Engine Repair had me bracing myself for its story to go to quietly harrowing places, not wrap things up in a bow. 

Meanwhile, a pervasive problem throughout the film is Pollono's direction (his first time helming a feature film) could use some polishing, particularly anytime he's tasked with depicting characters engaging in hand-to-hand squabbles. On the other hand, the acting in Small Engine Repair proves to be one of the film's strongest suits, particularly Shea Whigham channeling big Phillip Seymour Hoffman energy in his detailed work as Hanrahan. The performers in Small Engine Repair had me constantly engaged, but the erratic nature of the script left me disappointed. This is one movie that needed to commit more fully to the darkness of the tale it's telling, especially since the flashes of complexity we do get show that this cast & crew are capable of handling such multifaceted storytelling.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Unique and intimate stories define the best of times in The Year of the Everlasting Storm

Anthology films, by their very nature, a risky endeavor. Unless you're a masterpiece like Kwaidan, most of these movies can't help but feel like disjointed endeavors with super high highs and distractingly low lows. You're just throwing so much at the wall with these movies, it's not all bound to coalesce. This i especially true when you've got different directors are tasked with executing each segment. The new film The Year of the Everlasting Storm, which sees seven filmmakers from all around the world deliver shorts dealing in some way with the COVID-19, can't avoid this problem even with the presence of so many iconic filmmakers. 

The Year of the Everlasting Storm delivers yarns directed by Jafar Panahi, Anthony Chen, Malik Vitthal, Laura Poitras, Dominga Sotomayor, David Lowery, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, in that order! Most of these are documentaries, while Lowery, Chen, and Sotomayor opt for fictitious narratives capturing relatable experiences framed through the pandemic. The scenarios range from a mom and daughter trying to see a newborn child (that's Sotomayor's story), the investigation of a shady technology company that could be used to help track people with COVID-19 (that's Poitras's story), and anecdotes from a father trying to see his three kids while they're in the foster system (that's Vitthal's tale). Oh, and Weerasethakul films an installation he's built for bugs.

While some anthology films ask a series of directors to adhere to one genre or theme, The Year of the Everlasting Storm sees a bunch of auteurs making the kind of movies they've always made, just now with the background presence of COVID-19. This results in viewers getting bite-sized versions of the filmmaking style of individuals like Panahi and Poitras. Some of the filmmakers adjust to the more compact style of storytelling than others. Surprisingly, this includes Lowery, my personal favorite of the filmmakers assembled. However, his films rely so heavily on gradual pacing over a feature-length narrative which is tough to translate to this style of filmmaking.

Now, of course, this isn't Lowery's first go-around in short film filmmaking. I can't say if his countless other short films suffer from the same problems as his Everlasting Storm installment. However, in the context of his work here, Lowery's work underwhelms. The constant narration and super-short runtime made me wish Lowery had given his unusual narrative more room to breathe. Similarly coming up short is Chen's segment. I like the juxtaposition of all the hope of Chinese New Year played against the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic in Chen's setting of Beijing, China. However, his writing kept making me yearn for on-screen characters as distinctive as the short's aspect ratio.

Significantly better is Panahi's segment, which carries over the everyday filming style of his landmark feature This Is Not a Movie to capture more mundane circumstances of his mother-in-law coming into his home early in the pandemic. It all works so well as just laidback observational cinema before surprising the viewer with just how well Panahi has quietly built up to a friendship between the home's elderly newcomer and the family's pet iguana. Poitras, though not delivering something on par with Citizenfour, does create a compelling investigative thriller exploring how the horrors of surveillance don't stop just because a pandemic has gripped the planet. 

Best of all across these segments is a resistance to drop any sort of massive lasting message about the pandemic or how it'll affect people long-term. Everyone involved in The Year of the Everlasting Storm is aware that the pandemic isn't going anywhere anytime soon. That uncertainty informs a collection of short films that are more about people just finding ways to endure rather than delivering grand conclusions related to the pandemic. Plus, the best of these stories, namely the plight of single dad Bobby Yay Yay Jones (told through a thoughtful mixture of animation and FaceTime sessions), would be compelling even when detached from that health crisis. The Year of the Everlasting Storm is a mixed bag but its best segments make it clear why this was such an attractive creative endeavor to undertake.

Saturday, September 11, 2021

Malignant has some scary good surprises in store for viewers

Malignant isn't just a horror movie. It's also what happens when somebody makes multiple movies that gross over $1 billion worldwide. James Wan isn't just the filmmaker behind Saw and The Conjuring now, he's got enough clout to make whatever he wants. That includes an original scary feature full of blood, violence, heightened visual choices, and all sorts of other stuff that are bound to make studio executives who like reboots quiver. The result, like so many projects willed into existence by post-blockbuster success, is messy, but it's also so interesting and consistently entertaining that I was (mostly) won over. 

Madison Mitchell (Annabelle Wallis) is the lead of Malignant, a woman who has suffered multiple miscarriages, just the most recent tragedy to befall her tormented life. When her physically abusive boyfriend is murdered by a shadowy figure, Mitchell's world gets flipped on its head. This is even more true once Mitchell finds herself watching this figure, named Gabriel, commit a series of grisly murders. How could this be happening? It's just one of many strange occurrences in Mitchell's life, which include revelations about her past that could help pinpoint who this Gabriel is and what he wants.

Malignant makes use of some mildly trippy imagery to convey whenever Mitchell is being transported to watch vicious murders occur. The best of these transitions see's Mithcell's home gradually begin to transform into the domicile of a corpse-to-be. Meanwhile, even scenes set outside of nighttime murders make use of bolder visual flourishes that suggest the over-the-top nature of this story. Every manhole in this version of Seattle billows smoke at night, every neon sign or colored lightbulb drenches nearby rooms in bright shades of red. Mithcell's sister, Sydney (Maddie Hasson), can't just visit an old hospital, she has to visit a shambling hospital that looks like somewhere Scooby-Doo and friends would search for clues in.

Whereas Wan's Conjuring movies juxtaposed stylized demons with grounded surroundings, the world of Malignant is already heightened even before Gabriel starts stabbing people with his golden knife. In fact, the biggest problems in Malignant are whenever it tries too hard to add logic or a cohesive lore to its story. Instead of leaning into the dreamlike logic of certain sequences, screenwriter Akela Cooper tends to hammer home the reasoning behind why certain events are happening. Similarly, characters have a bad habit of just flatly delivering exposition or character motivations, as if Cooper and Wan are petrified of audiences getting turned off by a movie that just lets the inexplicable be inexplicable.

This flawed approach to the dialogue makes early intimate scenes hard to take seriously, especially since Cooper keeps swinging wildly back-and-forth from vulnerable discussions about miscarriages to extended horror set pieces straight out of Lights Out. The tonal problems also extend to awkward pieces of comedy from Sydney and a thirsty crime scene investigator, both of which stick out like a sore thumb. Luckily, Malignant gets more and more bonkers as it goes along. Cooper does manage to deliver the kind of delightful twists that make up the best campfire stories and Wan is accompanying those enjoyably madcap turns with his pronounced camerawork. All of that devotion to the absurd culminates in a third act that's just deliriously off-the-rails. Whatever you think you know about Malignant won't prepare you for how unabashedly freaky, gory, and nasty it gets. 

All of it's done with an assured sense of confidence and welcome eschewing of anything approaching reality. Wan isn't here to emulate everyday life nor is he just following in the footsteps of older horror movies.  Instead, he's making something that's just wildly entertaining to watch, with him and Cooper showing a real talent for making something that feels vivid and alive. Even the main baddie, Gabriel, ends up feeling like a genuinely creative horror villain, even if the reliance on the sound of his bones popping and crunching as he moves feels too close to The Crooked Man from Wan's own The Conjuring 2

Malignant as an overall movie is erratic in quality and its character-driven qualities never get off the ground like they should. Like many horror movies, you'll be left trying to remember what kind of heftier ideas from the first act (in this case, trauma related to miscarriages and Mitchell's sense of loneliness) were even trying to be explored once the blood starts flowing. But the parts of Malignant, especially in its final half-hour, that are so delightfully off-the-wall make that flaw manageable. In his two decades of experience direction feaure-length movies, Wan has grown confident enough to handle something this bizarre and it's exciting to watch unfold. In other words, Malignant is no The Book of Henry in the pantheon of post-blockbuster passion projects!

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

The Card Counter has a stacked hand


Sometimes, I want a movie that affords escapism. Something full of bright colors, cathartic moments, and hope for a better tomorrow. And sometimes I want the opposite. I want, dare I say even need, a movie that recognizes the horrors of the world. Rather than offer solutions to problems too big for tidy resolutions, such films convey the shrieking frustration of living in a world where inhumane actions go on without anyone batting an eye. Much like he did with the 2018 film First Reformed, writer/director Paul Schrader has yet again delivered the type of feature that captures anger at ongoing injustices with The Card Counter

This may be the most American movie of the year in terms of being the story of men who see violence as the only solution to all their problems while the only thing besides hurting others that can fill the emptiness in their souls is money. Our lead here is William Tell (Oscar Isaac), a man who spends his days traveling across different casinos and playing cards. He likes the repetition, he tells the viewer in voiceover, much like he appreciated the routines in his eight-and-a-half-year-long stint in the slammer. Tell got incarcerated for torturing detained prisoners in the Middle East as part of his time in the U.S. military. The footage we see of these horrendous actions makes it clear Tell is meant to be a parallel to certain individuals arrested as part of the widely-publicized Bagram torture and prisoner abuse instances from the early 2000s.

Tell and other soldiers got put in prison, but his superior, Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe), and other powerful people who sanctioned the use of torture got away scot-free. Haunting memories of the pain Tell inflicted on others dominates his mind while Cirk (Tye Sheridan) has his brain focused on one thing: revenge. His dad was another soldier who worked for Gordo and he got dishonorably discharged for his actions, which sent him on a spiral culminating in his suicide. Cirk wants to torture Gordo himself in the name of vengeance, but Tell is hoping to avert that. No more bloodshed. It can't solve anything. Tell is a man possessed by obsession. Now he's taking Cirk on a cross-country poker tour to earn up enough money so that this twenty-something can have a life defined by something other than obsession over the past.

In The Card Counter, violence is a black hole sucking in anything and everything around it. Even when Tell isn't violently mutilating someone, the memories of violence he's inflicted seep over his thoughts. A scene set at the perfectly-named eatery Chat n' Chew is a perfect example of how Tell is a walking shadow of his former self, just wading through a fog of inhumane actions. Schrader pulls the camera in slowly but surely on Isaac's perfectly pitched performance as this actor portrays Tell recounting the details of his time being surrounded by torture 24/7. Isaac hauntingly captures how Tell isn't looking for pity. Cementing the horrific nature of his deeds is the only way he can live with what he's done.

Tell understands the power of violence and the scar it leaves in the years to come. Cirk doesn't, there's a naivety to how he approaches the concept of using torture on Gordo to provide some internal emotional catharsis. The rich dynamic between Tell and Cirk, not to mention their differing approaches to the concept of violence, make The Card Teller as compelling as any nail-biter card game. The thoughtful fusion of sociopolitical commentary and character work also emerges (among other avenues) through Tell's rival on the poker circuit, a man named Mr. USA. Adorned in red-white-and-blue, he has a simplistic view of his country that irritates Tell. This authentic depiction of the complicated views some veterans (especially veterans of color like Tell) have of the country they "fought for" is rarely seen in mainstream cinema, but serves as a key underlying theme here in The Card Counter.

Also impressing in The Card Counter is the visuals, particularly how Schrader uses them to reflect Tell's fractured psyche. The way Tell covers every item in his hotel room with these stark white sheets is especially evocative just on its own terms, let alone the way it startlingly conveys how detached Tell is from the world around him. He doesn't want to get too close to people just like he doesn't want to come into contact with foreign objects in the place he snoozes. Even the use of that 1.66: 1 aspect ratio, which echoes the 1.37: 1 aspect ratio of First Reformed, quietly captures how characters like Tell or Cirk are confined in by their traumatic pasts even when they're just having a drink at the bar. It's an appropriately persistent way to convey how enduring horrors of yesterday are.

Schrader delivers sublime work as a visualist and a writer on The Card Counter, and thankfully, the cast he's assembled is also doing terrific work. Of course, this is Oscar Isaac's show from top-to-bottom and he's more than up for the challenge portraying a wearier character than he usually tackles. With flecks of grey hair peppering the top of his head, Isaac conveys the years of mental turmoil he's suffered while, in the vein of other classic Schrader protagonists, keeping you on your toes as to how you feel about this guy. Do I sympathize with him? Am I terrified by him? It's a richly complex turn worthy of both Isaac's best work as an actor and of a movie willing to tackle such deep and grim territory. 

The Card Counter's relentlessly dour tone, not to mention some of Schrader's expectedly odd dialogue, will not be to everyone's liking. But as someone who likes gambling movies, good Oscar Isaac performances, and films that dare to confront the injustices of the world, The Card Counter was right up my alley. It's just the kind of movie I'd turn to when I need cinema that isn't escaping from reality but rather looking it square in the eye.

Friday, September 3, 2021

Micro Reviews Part Three: The Secret of the Ooze

Graduate school and continuing responsibilites to outlets like Collider and Looper mean I'm once again faced with little time to deliver massive in-depth reviews for movie I watch. But I do like to ramble about cinema and I've watched some good stuff from all over the planet recently. Therefore, I thought it was time to once again bring the Micro Reviews format to to offer my own thoughts on six different feature films! Let's begin with a lesser-known but incredibly fascinating motion picture from the 1970s. 

Peppermint Soda

“No politics at this school! Especially the girls!” This one line crystallizes the crux of Peppermint Soda, a 1977 movie by director Diane Kurys. Through following the lives of Anne (Eléonore Klarwein) and Frederiquean (Odile Michel) in the year 1963, Durys crafts a deft exploration of how society works overtime to squash individuality and autonomy in women from a young age. It's also a poignant and authentic depiction of how people's distinct personalities can slowly but surely bubble to the surface through the pains of growing up. Told with a warm style of filmmaking that both evokes how memories look in one's head and serves as an appropriately impactful contrast to the harsh events on-screen, Kurys work behind the camera is exceptional and the same be said for the lead performances. 

Though the school Anne and Frederiquean attend tries to squelch politics and individualism, Peppermint Soda quietly showcases how those and other factors cannot be extinguished in the lives of youngsters. In so vividly capturing this concept, Peppermint Soda becomes a coming-of-age yarn as bittersweet as it is thoughtful. 

Office Space

Mike Judge's 1999 movie Office Space isn't so much a comedy as it is a horror movie. I don't mean that as a critique or a reflection of the movie being berefit of laughs, I mean that Judge has captured the crushing realities of working a 9-to-5 job so accurately that it can't help but send a shiver down one's spine. Still so accurate more than two decades after its release, Office Space also registers as quite funny and has aged surprisingly nicely for a 1990s comedy (only a quick gay slur in the credits and a handful of references to sexual assault in prison really stands out as outdated). Judge's script is a well-paced piece of work that keeps the gags coming and jumping around across various deeply flawed characters (including Ron Livingston's protagonist and Stephen Root's put-upon Milton) makes sure that none of them stay on-screen too long to become insufferable. There's a good reason Office Space has endured in pop culture for so long, it's both extremely funny and eerily on point with how soul-crushing conformist workspaces can be.

Three Colours: White

I'm not sure what I expected from Three Colours: White, but it certainly wasn't this! In comparison to the emotionally harrowing nature of its predecessor and successor, White is a film with recurring flashes of comedy that include its protagonist traveling across countries inside of a suitcase. Krzysztof Kieślowski uses this distinct tone to execute a story that basically boilds down to a man playing a long-game con on an ex-lover after he's been jilted by her. It's not as impactful as the other two movies in the Three Colours trilogy, but Kieślowski remains such a good filmmaker that the lack of substance isn't a fatal problem. The most lasting scenes here concern a man who wishes to die, a request that the protagonist comes startingly close to fulfilling. Kieślowski masterfully executes (no pun intended) a would-be execution scene that crackles with tension. Meanwhile, the director incorporates the color white thoughtfully into the film's backgrounds, including in just the use of snowy backdrops. Even the weakest link in the Three Colours trilogy leaves one with plenty to chew on.

A Story of Floating Weeds

An unexpected trend in my cinematic viewings in the last week was digesting two different motion pictures that serve as early works from acclaimed auteurs. One of these examples is A Story of Floating Weeds, a 1934 feature from Yasujiro Ozu. Told without any audible dialogue, the best word to describe this particular Ozu outing is "heartbreaking". A man returning home to his wife and child while shielding his true identity from his son, it's easy to see how that concept could be used to create something that just crushes your soul. Ozu does just that in crafting a tale that can only end in tragedy, especially when the son is set up with a woman who has ulterior motives for loving him. All the while, a sense of deep empathy is imposed on each character that make particularly intimate scenes (like one where members of an acting troupe discuss what they'll each do now that the group is disbanding) extra devastating. Ozu may not be working in sound yet, but A Story of Floating Weeds shows him totally in command of engaging storytelling nonetheless. 


This is where it all began for director Christopher Nolan, the low-budget 1998 movie Following. Though different from his subsequent features in several ways (the monochromatic color scheme for one thing, ditto the emphasis on profane language and frank discussions about sex), it's also clearly a proto-Christopher Nolan joint with its largely-male cast navigating a non-linear genre film narrative. It's not as polished as those future efforts but how could it be? Following cost $6,000 to make! Much like Darren Aronofsky's Pi, Following works best as the cinematic equivalent to baby pictures, a snapshot of an auteur in their infancy. 

The most impressive part of the proceedings is how the twisty non-linear storytelling doesn't collapse on itself as well how Following proves once again just how cool anything looks filmed in black-and-white . The characters, particularly the lone woman in the cast, aren't especially distinctive in their individual personalities, but at least the actors portraying them fare fine delivering engaging performances. Nolan would make better movies than Following, but that doesn't mean this directorial debut is devoid of merit.

Three Colours: Red

I cold be talking about Three Colours: Red in greater detail for Collider down the road, so I won't blabber on too much about it. However, I will say that I found it terrific, especially in how it depicts a friendship forming between two very different people. The bond that develops between a woman and an elderly man eavesdropping on his neighbors initially seems like something that would be impossible to actually concoct. Eventually, though, Kieślowski drops enough low-key but vulnerable exchanges between the duo that it becomes impossible not to imagine them rubbing off on one another. Plus, I love the way the ending unexpectedly ties the whole trilogy together. What a great way to cap off a trio of movies that offer so much to chew on when it comes to the human condition.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a thrilling adventure

As Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings begins, Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) is content to spend his days as a parking valet in San Francisco with best buddy Katy (Awkwafina). However, a sudden encounter with a gaggle of powerful gangsters means that Shang-Chi can no longer escape his past. He's not just any parking valet, he's the son of Wenwu (Tony Leung), the leader of the Ten Rings terrorist organization. Not only that, but Shang-Chi has a lot of pent-up trauma stemming from the loss of his mom, Ying Le (Fala Chen), and his dad's abusive treatment towards himself and his sister Xu Xialing (Meng'er Zhang). An awkward family reunion is in store, one involving the ten magical rings Wenwu wears on his arms.

Intriguingly, writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton (David Callaham and Cretton's writing partner Andrew Lanham also penned the script) has ported over to Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings his fascination with how people grapple with coming from abusive family dynamics. There may be magical rings factor into the proceedings, but Shang-Chi's personal quest is in tune with the kind of thematic territory Cretton previously explored in Short Term 12 and The Glass Castle. The haunting lyrics "Look into my eyes so you know what it's like/to live a life not knowing what a normal life's like" from the "So You Know What It's Like" scene from Short Term 12 might as well be the thesis statement of Shang-Chi's life. 

Cretton's exploration of this material proves as thoughtful as ever, especially in exploring the messy complexities of interfamilial dynamics, such as Xialing feeling abandoned by her brother after he decided to escape his toxic living situation. Even people who've endured abusive treatment are capable of leaving lasting adverse psychological effects on loved ones. Meanwhile, the true extent of how much Shang-Chi is unfolded through recurring non-linear digressions that make for a thoughtful structural extension of how this character is always opening himself up to the past piecemeal style. A concise prologue just revealing every facet of his past just wouldn't feel right for this guy.

Nicely, Cretton and the other screenwriters also make room for Xialing and Katy to have their own specific arcs that thoughtfully intertwine with the big action set pieces no matter how over-the-top things become. The only real shortcoming of the script is a middle section where Shang-Chi and his two closest allies return home to Wenwu's lair, which kicks off a series of exposition-heavy scenes. The magnetic presence of performers like Tony Leung and Michelle Yeoh, both of whom are tasked with much of this dialogue, could instill gravitas into the lyrics of Nickelback's "Rockstar", so it's not the end of the world. Still, more films could take a cue from the prologue of Hellboy II: The Golden Army in finding more visually dynamic ways of conveying expository storytelling material. 

Still, overall the screenplay for Shang-Chi and the Ten Rings is a thoughtfully crafted creation that never loses sight of the distinctly human plights it's hinging everything on. Those make for a great emotional bedrock for the assorted action scenes, which are a delight, especially the more grounded hand-to-hand combat duels. A big skirmish on a city bus kicks things off with a bang thanks to crisp editing and terrific choreography while all the tiny physical comedy details in a fight scene set thousands of feet off the ground. All the fights look so good and exciting that they made me wanna say "See all that stuff in there, Iron Fist? That's why your show never worked!"

Another charm of Shang-Chi is how it oscillates so wildly from over-the-top fight scenes and genre movies elements to return to the more intimate character-driven stuff centered on familial trauma. Despite not being well-versed in the world of summer blockbusters, Cretton proves adept at juggling everything even when it comes time for a climax that tries to mix father/son monologues that could've been lifted from Short Term 12 with a gloriously absurd duel that's like the lovechild of How to Train Your Dragon and Pacific Rim. Part of that's simply down to its commitment to both ingredients, Shang-Chi clearly loves the characters it's dedicated to exploring while it also has an infectious sense of excitement, rather than obligation, surrounding its fantastical material.

The latter material is told through some absurdly gorgeous visuals that don't skimp on the bright colors, as established by a prologue showing the otherworldly domain Ying Le calls home. It's all so gorgeous-looking and I appreciate how often Cretton just lets the visuals do the talking. No need to intrude on a gorgeous scene, like Le and Wenwu fighting/sensually connecting, with ham-fisted dialogue. Even an apocalyptic threat introduced in the climax makes heavy use of bright shades of red and purple. Yay for comic book movies making use of all the vivid hues that their source material never fails to embrace! 

On top of everything else, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings even manages to deliver a superb cast, particularly Simu Liu in a star-making turn as Shang-Chi. In his first-ever film role (discounting a supporting turn in the indie film Women is Losers), Liu's the real deal as a movie star. He has charisma to spare, is effortlessly believable in the fight scenes, and I love his portrayal of Shang-Chi grappling with his complicated feelings towards his father. Awakafina's a treat as Katy, she evokes Tiffany Haddish in Girls' Trip in being enjoyable comic relief but also someone who you can buy as someone you'd want to be friends with. As for Tony Leung as, this guy must be talented, wonder if he's ever done any other notable movies? 

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is the 25th movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but despite coming so deep into this franchise's history, the movie doesn't get by on referencing past MCU entries. What makes Shang-Chi so fun is that you can often even forget that it exists in the same universe as Loki or WandaVision, it all works so well on its own level. Save for some hiccups in navigating expository dialogue and effective green-screen work, director Destin Daniel Cretton has graduated to the leagues of blockbuster filmmaking superbly. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a thrilling yarn about familial strife with lots and lots of thrilling punching. That's the kind of combination I find irresistible and I have a hunch, dear reader, you'll feel the same.

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Rebecca Hall makes The Night House worth a peek


What do you do when you lose someone you love? That's the problem Beth (Rebecca Hall) has to deal with everyday now. Just waking up in the morning is a problem, especially since she's awakening in the house her now deceased husband, Owen, built with his own two hands. As she grapples with what her existence even looks like now, Beth begins to notice some strange occurrences. First she hears an unexpected gunshot noise one morning, then there are the peculiar noises in the middle of the night. What's going on? Is there some kind of spirit in her house? Is Beth not as alone as she thought? Some photos on Owen's phone of another woman also lead her to suspect that her dead lover may not have been entirely what he seemed.

The Night House, directed by David Bruckner and written by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski, is one of those weighty horror movies that's more interesting to unpack as a lengthy metaphor than it is frightening as a straightforward horror movie. Obviously, heavy themes and chill-inducing scares can work together seamlessly, just ask the likes of Jennifer Kent, George A. Romero, Ari Aster, or countless other horror filmmakers. But in The Night House, I found myself spending more time to try and unpack imagery on-screen and how it connects to Beth's plight rather than being regularly terrified. It'd help if the visuals were more abstract and not meant to be dissected, but Bruckners visual approach is more like a puzzle waiting to be solved than just ambiguous shots meant to be freely interpreted.

Even Bruckner seems to be aware of how the film isn't as heavy on conventional scares since The Night House drops (a few too many) predictable jump scares in its first-half that base frightening the viewer on just abrupt loudness rather than character-driven thrillers. However, even if The Night House isn't the next The VVitch in terms of thought-provoking horror cinema, it's still an intriguing exercise that left me affected more often than not. Interestingly, the film often works best as just a grounded drama about a woman navigating the complexities of losing a loved one. Death by suicide is already a challenge to contemplate. Eventually discovering a deceased lover was a much more complicated figure is a whole other kettle of fish. 

Collins and Piotrowski don't shy away from depicting the messiness of Beth grappling with these issues. Her candor and imperfections are fascinating to watch considering how authentically-rendered they feel. This doesn't feel an approximation of how it feels to lose someone, The Night House makes time for both ghostly haunts and realistically complex depictions of grief. This weighty material is perfect for lead performer Rebecca Hall, a constantly underrated actor that deserves more substantive lead roles like this one. The Night House is Hall's show and she proves more than equipped to step up to that challenge.

I especially like how well Hall handles Beth's recurring instances of dry dark humor. It's a side of Beth that tends to make others uncomfortable for how frankly it mentions concepts like suicide or depresison. However, Hall subtly conveys how her casual attitude towards these ideas suggests a darker side to this character, one that's all too familiar with the process of teetering on the verge of death. She actsl like she's confidently unafraid to conceal the fear she deals with everyday. There's so much to unpack in Hall's richly-layered performer but elements of her work, like that sardonic wit, also make it a performance one can enjoy for all its surface-level pleasures as well. 

When it comes time for the nighttime heightened sequences, Bruckner and cinematographer Elisha Christian lather on the red color grading and unexpected imagery. The best of these visuals is how some kind of entity keeps appearing as the corner of a room or the space between a pillar and a doorway. It's hard to explain, but in the movie itself, this being is like a niftily eerie rorschach test that constantly tests the audience and Beth on what they're actually seeing. Even more so than the visuals, the sound work is what really sells the atmosphere of these nightmarish scenes of uncertainty in The Night House. It may not be the scariest depiction of coping with grief, but the thematic ambition, not to mention Rebecca Hall's lead performance, make The Night House someplace horror afficianados likely won't regret residing in.